Krautspeak Day

Von Anatol Stefanowitsch

To most Ger­mans, today is just an ordi­nary Sam­stag (or Sonnabend, depend­ing on where they live). But to Ger­man lan­guage pre­scrip­tivists, it is a qua­si-nation­al hol­i­day, a lin­guis­tic Fourth of July and Fifth of Novem­ber rolled into one: the Tag der Deutschen Sprache (“Day of the Ger­man Lan­guage”), a sort of pre­scient com­mem­o­ra­tion day for the Ger­man lan­guage as it will have been when it no longer is.

In the Eng­lish-speak­ing world, pre­scrip­tivists are con­cerned main­ly with a small set of words and gram­mat­i­cal struc­tures that they call “bad gram­mar” – phe­nom­e­na like the “split” infini­tive or the pas­sive (struc­tures which they would like to remove from the lan­guage com­plete­ly), the rel­a­tive mark­ers that and which (which they would like to see used for restric­tive and non-restric­tive rel­a­tive claus­es respec­tive­ly), and cer­tain sen­ten­tial adverbs like hope­ful­ly (which they seem to think should nev­er be used to express the speaker’s atti­tude towards the con­tents of a sen­tence). They typ­i­cal­ly jus­ti­fy their pro­scrip­tions and pre­scrip­tions by appeals to log­ic (although they nev­er spell out what that log­ic actu­al­ly is).

In Ger­many, this fruit­ful field of impos­ing an unde­clared (and large­ly imag­i­nary) log­ic on lin­guis­tic struc­tures is left large­ly to one man – Bas­t­ian Sick, who has turned it into an impres­sive­ly prof­itable busi­ness and who was able to lit­er­al­ly fill a sta­di­um (a small sta­di­um, but a sta­di­um nonethe­less) with his “world’s largest Deutschstunde” a few years ago – some­thing that, as far as I know, even the great Amer­i­can pre­scrip­tivist William Safire nev­er man­aged (or even attempted).

Instead, the vast major­i­ty of Ger­man pre­scrip­tivists are focused on a sin­gle issue: To keep the Ger­man lan­guage free of loan words. Or rather, to keep the lan­guage free of Eng­lish loan words. The Vere­in Deutsche Sprache, a club for lan­guage purists, claims to have 36 000 mem­bers (mean­ing that they, too, could fill a sta­di­um), all of whom are con­vinced that the Ger­man lan­guage is about to be wiped off the face of the earth by a del­uge of bor­row­ings from Eng­lish. When asked to pro­vide evi­dence of this del­uge, they invari­ably point to the word sale (which Ger­man busi­ness­es have adopt­ed instead of the teu­ton­i­cal­ly unwieldy Som­mer­schlussverkauf and Win­ter­schlussverkauf), to the infor­ma­tion desks in Ger­man rail­way sta­tions which, until recent­ly, were called Ser­vice Points, to the verb down­load­en (which I will return to below) and to the Ger­man word for “mobile phone”, Handy (which I will also return to below although I will have to be quick about it as it is rapid­ly dis­ap­pear­ing due to the fact that mobile phones have become the new reg­u­lar phones and that peo­ple have con­se­quent­ly begun to refer to them sim­ply as Tele­fon).

This is not to say that there are just those four Eng­lish loan words in Ger­man. Due, ini­tial­ly, to a ris­ing impor­tance of the Unit­ed States of Amer­i­ca as a geopo­lit­i­cal pow­er and, lat­er, to the lin­guis­tic real­i­ties of a glob­al­iz­ing world, Ger­man – like all oth­er major lan­guages – has been expe­ri­enc­ing a steady influx of Eng­lish vocab­u­lary, although text counts out­side of shop­ping malls and rail­way sta­tions show that this influx is more trick­le than del­uge. The edi­tors of the DUDEN – Germany’s most pres­ti­gious dic­tio­nary – put the total per­cent­age of Eng­lish loan words at 3.6 per­cent. Giv­en that a word needs to stick around in every­day lan­guage use for a while before it is con­sid­ered for inclu­sion in a dic­tio­nary, this fig­ure may under­es­ti­mate the per­cent­age found in actu­al usage some­what. How­ev­er, text counts show that the total per­cent­age of rec­og­niz­ably for­eign words in run­ning text is around 8 per­cent; this includes a sub­stan­tial num­ber of French, Latin and Greek loan words, so even if Eng­lish words were to account for three quar­ters of all loan words (which is unlike­ly), this would put their per­cent­age at only six per­cent (in com­par­i­son, French loan words in Eng­lish account for almost 30 per­cent of the Eng­lish lexicon).

So while Ger­man is far from being swamped with Eng­lish loan words, there would be a long list of exam­ples to choose from when asked to pro­vide evi­dence for a threat to the Ger­man lan­guage. The fact that Ger­man lan­guage purists pro­vide the same hand­ful of exam­ples every time sug­gests that the fear of lin­guis­tic inun­da­tion is not based on an obser­va­tion of actu­al lan­guage use but on some­thing deep­er and much darker.

The lack of even the most super­fi­cial obser­va­tion is also evi­dent in the claim often made by Ger­man lan­guage purists that Eng­lish words do not fit into the gram­mar of Ger­man and that their pres­ence will ulti­mate­ly lead to a dis­in­te­gra­tion of the gram­mat­i­cal sys­tem. In this con­text, the verb down­load­en is of major con­cern to the purists. Like Eng­lish, Ger­man has par­ti­cle verbs, where an ele­ment like herunter (“down”) can be sep­a­rat­ed from a verb stem like laden (“load”). Ger­man speak­ers, so the purists tell us, will not know whether to treat a loan verb like down­load­en like a par­ti­cle verb or like a sim­ple verb with no inter­nal struc­ture. Thus, they will not know, for exam­ple, whether the past par­tici­ple (sig­nalled in Ger­man by the cir­cum­fix ge-[VERB]-(e)t) of down­load­en should be down­ge­loaded (par­ti­cle verb) or gedown­load­et (sim­ple verb). ((There is a third option, that nev­er occurs to the purists: that down­load­en is treat­ed like a pre­fix verb, in which case the ge- part of the cir­cum­fix would be sup­pressed and the past par­tici­ple should be down­load­et)).

The purists are so busy wor­ry­ing about how this con­fu­sion will cause the Ger­man gram­mar to col­lapse, that they fail to notice that Ger­man speak­ers quite hap­pi­ly use both options (with a pref­er­ence for the sec­ond, although the DUDEN lists the first as the only pos­si­ble one). They also fail to notice how the Eng­lish verb down­load is smooth­ly inte­grat­ed into the inflec­tion­al sys­tem of Ger­man, giv­ing us forms like ich down­loade, du down­loadest, sie down­loadet, etc. This inte­gra­tion always occurs; some of the more sophis­ti­cat­ed purists some­times claim that the bor­rowed col­or adjec­tive pink can­not be inflect­ed like oth­er adjec­tives. It seems that nobody has informed the speak­ers of Ger­man of this impos­si­bil­i­ty, as they quite rou­tine­ly say things like meine pinke Jacke or die pinkeste Jacke der Welt.

So why do Ger­man pre­scrip­tivists focus so intense­ly on loan words (and even avid Bas­t­ian Sick fans are less impressed with his claims about the lack of log­ic in lin­guis­tic usage than they are with his claim that the loan trans­la­tion Sinn machen (from Eng­lish “to make sense”) does not make any sense at all and that the Ger­man expres­sion Sinn ergeben (“to pro­duce, add up to, yield sense”) is much more sensible.

One expla­na­tion that is some­times sug­gest­ed is that puri­ty in gen­er­al is a cen­tral motif in the col­lec­tive imag­i­na­tion of us Ger­mans. And look­ing at Ger­man soci­ety and its recent his­to­ry, evi­dence of a dan­ger­ous obses­sion with puri­ty (racial, envi­ron­men­tal, dietary, etc.) is hard to ignore, and this obses­sion cer­tain­ly pro­vides a well-entrenched dis­course frame for pre­scrip­tivist arguments.

How­ev­er, an obses­sion with puri­ty does not explain why Ger­man purists are not con­cerned with loan words in gen­er­al, but only with Eng­lish loan words. In fact, they fre­quent­ly sug­gest alter­na­tives to Eng­lish loan words that are clear­ly French or Latin in ori­gin (for exam­ple, they enthu­si­as­ti­cal­ly wel­comed the deci­sion of Deutsche Bahn to rename their Ser­vice Points „Infor­ma­tion“). Instead, it is a spe­cif­ic dis­dain of Amer­i­ca and all things Amer­i­can that seems to dri­ve many of the lan­guage purists. This dis­dain is also a cen­tral motif of Ger­man pub­lic dis­course. Ger­mans do not gen­er­al­ly hate Amer­i­ca or the Amer­i­cans (although a small but deter­mined num­ber across the entire polit­i­cal spec­trum do), but many Ger­mans agree that Amer­i­can cul­ture – if you can even call it Kul­tur [insert cul­tur­al­ly sophis­ti­cat­ed chuck­le] – con­sists of Hol­ly­wood movies, bub­ble gum and a deep igno­rance of his­to­ry, geog­ra­phy, pol­i­tics and almost every oth­er domain of knowl­edge. The Vere­in Deutsche Sprache is very upfront about its anti-Amer­i­can­ism – they claim that speak­ers using Eng­lish loan words are amerikahörig (“in bondage to Amer­i­ca”) and in the grip of Amitümelei (“Amer­i­ca-mania”), that the Amer­i­can Wirtschafts- und Welt­macht (“eco­nom­ic and world pow­er”) has Benen­nung­shoheit (“sov­er­eign­ty of labeling/naming”) all over the world, that Ger­mans have capit­u­lat­ed cul­tur­al­ly to the Amer­i­cans and that a US-amer­i­can Monokul­tur is spread­ing. The rea­son for all this, they believe, is the fact that after the Sec­ond World War Germany’s polit­i­cal lead­er­ship believed their own cul­ture to be deval­ued and com­pro­mised by the Nazi era and wel­comed Amer­i­can cul­tur­al dom­i­nance as a way of dri­ving out the rem­nants of their cul­tur­al her­itage (the Vere­in fails to explain what they con­sid­er to be wrong with this belief and this strat­e­gy, both of which seem plau­si­ble and laud­able to me).

So what they are real­ly cel­e­brat­ing today is not the Ger­man lan­guage at all; it is their resis­tance to Amer­i­ca, their resis­tance to accept­ing the deep frac­ture in their own cul­tur­al tra­di­tion, and their resis­tance to the fact that mod­ern Ger­man cul­ture is, and should be, one among many pieces in a glob­al cul­tur­al puzzle.

Iron­i­cal­ly – and it will come as no sur­prise that pre­scrip­tivists fail to notice this, too – lin­guis­tic bor­row­ing is not usu­al­ly (and cer­tain­ly not in the case of Eng­lish loan words in Ger­man) a form of lin­guis­tic or cul­tur­al capit­u­la­tion. It is more of a con­fis­ca­tion of use­ful lan­guage mate­r­i­al that is then suit­ed to the pur­pos­es of the bor­row­ing lan­guage with lit­tle regard to the lan­guage from which it orig­i­nal­ly came. The (dis­ap­pear­ing) word Handy shows this: it was nev­er (well, almost nev­er (link in Ger­man)) used to refer to mobile tele­phones in Eng­lish. This did not stop Ger­mans from using the word with pre­cise­ly this mean­ing even after the non-exis­tence of the rel­e­vant word sense in Eng­lish became gen­er­al knowl­edge. Maybe I just don’t know enough about things like the sov­er­eign­ty of nam­ing, but it seems to me that the Ger­man speech com­mu­ni­ty act­ed rather inde­pen­dent­ly (insub­or­di­nate­ly?) in the case of Handy and the many oth­er “pseu­do-angli­cisms” they invent­ed over the years.

Any­way, Mer­ry Germanmas.

17 Gedanken zu „Krautspeak Day

  1. Opa Hans

    Cool. I think at least the sec­ond part should also be pub­lished in Ger­man (after the Tag der deutschen Sprache of course)

  2. Jan

    I’m not (yet?) active­ly twit­ter­ing, but would­n’t it be handy to spread a #kraut­speak tag so this fan­tas­tic idea has the oppor­tu­ni­ty to go viral?

  3. Erbloggtes

    The Anti-Amer­i­can­ism you cas­ti­gate the VDS for is a strong Ger­man atti­tude. This sen­tence for example:

    Due, ini­tial­ly, to a ris­ing impor­tance of the Unit­ed States of Amer­i­ca as an impor­tant geopo­lit­i­cal pow­er and, lat­er, to the lin­guis­tic real­i­ties of a glob­al­iz­ing world, Ger­man – like all oth­er major lan­guages – has been expe­ri­enc­ing a steady influx of Eng­lish vocabulary”.

    It’s anti-Amer­i­can because the first and main rea­son for influx of Amer­i­can vocab­u­lary is named geopo­lit­i­cal pow­er. That is to say the USA came with mil­i­tary and eco­nom­ic pow­er to achieve hege­mo­ny over Ger­many and the world (“like all oth­er major lan­guages”). Well, that’s true, in part, for WW II and after. It’s called imperialism.

    But the inva­sion of words was pri­or to the inva­sion of Nor­mandy. In Weimar era, the USA were the pro­to­type of moder­ni­ty, indus­try, equal oppor­tu­ni­ty, and mass pros­per­i­ty. For the demo­c­ra­t­ic par­ties they were the ide­al to fol­low. But the rad­i­cal right and the rad­i­cal left hat­ed them since WW I. Since then, puri­ty of Amer­i­can influ­ences meant: non-wes­ter­n­i­ty (Nichtwest­lichkeit) — with Amer­i­ca as sym­bol for “the West”.

    To reduce the USA and its influ­ence on Ger­man lan­guage to the impe­ri­al­is­tic super­pow­er of 1945 (as Ger­man left­ists tend to) means to for­get the many achieve­ments of Amer­i­can cul­ture and soci­ety we wish to get for our­selves. That is why we love Amer­i­ca — and why we import Amer­i­can words to the Ger­man language:

    Because it’s cool.

    1. Anatol Stefanowitsch Beitragsautor

      There is lit­tle lin­guis­tic evi­dence for a cool­ness factor.

      [Edit: To clar­i­fy: There is lots of lin­guis­tic evi­dence for a cool­ness fac­tor. There is lit­tle lin­guis­tic evi­dence for a cool­ness fac­tor as a moti­va­tion for lex­i­cal borrowing.]

  4. Elisa Erali

    Per­haps the third option, down­load­et, does not occur to the purists because of the stress on the first syl­la­ble. The pre­fix of pre­fix verbs is nev­er stressed, e.g., erfahren, empfehlen, verhaften.
    Fun stuff.

  5. Heiko Kraut

    It’s kin­da fun­ny to read as some­one that speaks the ger­man lan­guage as his moth­er­tongue. But let me tell you that you don’t have to wor­ry about ger­mans start­ing to stop using englsih words… the few “purists” are just a minor­i­ty that won’t fol­low the zeit­geist that changed dras­ticly since they played glock­en­spiel in the kindergarden 😉

  6. David

    Per­haps the third option, down­load­et, does not occur to the purists because of the stress on the first syllable.

    That is plau­si­ble. It is cer­tain­ly one of the most sol­id rules of Ger­man mor­phol­o­gy (admit­ting, if I am right, of only a sin­gle excep­tion) that a verb takes ge- in the past par­tici­ple if and only if the first syl­la­ble of its stem is stressed. Whether this syl­la­ble is a pre­fix is imma­te­r­i­al. Hence a par­tici­ple “down­load­et” does not real­ly seem to be an option, or at least it would con­sti­tute a real, if per­haps small, breach in the gram­mat­i­cal system.

  7. fj

    Instead of „Handy“, I tried „Trag­bar­er Hand­fern­sprech­er“, but extreme unwiel­d­y­ness pre­vent­ed its adop­tion. And the acronym Tra­hafe sounds more like a for­mer East-bloc mak­er of con­struc­tion machines.

  8. Max

    Actu­al­ly, I don’t think that even 1% of the Ger­mans do know the “Vere­in deutsche Sprache”.
    And the ones who know give a sh…
    This “Vere­in” has no influ­ence and will hope­ful­ly (pun intend­ed) nev­er have.

    Lan­guage (jeah, even the Ger­man) is vivid and devel­ops day by day. Even if we don’t like the changes one lan­guage “suf­fers from”, we have to accept it as reality.

    This is some­thing that con­ser­v­a­tive, right-wing orga­ni­za­tions like the “Vere­in deutsche Sprache” will nev­er accept.

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